Trying to keep the magic in the air

33 years later, time leaves its mark on Le Grand David show

By Linda Matchan
Globe Staff / March 19, 2010

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BEVERLY — For the cast members of the venerable 33-year-old stage extravaganza called “Le Grand David and His Own Spectacular Magic Company,’’ the show must go on.

It just has to. Never mind that its creator and leading man, Marco the Magi, at 77, is frail and faltering and watching the show from a wheelchair in the wings. Or that the people leaping in and out of boxes are getting stiffer, the clowns more stooped, the tricks a little older, the audience a little thinner.

Who among them can imagine life without the opulent magic show they’ve been staging at the Cabot Street Cinema Theatre almost every Sunday since 1977, with its levitations and transpositions and disappearing ducks, its storehouse of 500 embellished costumes and 25 lush curtains and backdrops, its barbershop singers and tap-dancing cows?

“I always told my kids, ‘Some kids go skiing for the weekend; we put on a magic show,’ ’’ said Katie Bull of Beverly, one of the original performers whose duties include floating a table in the air, tap-dancing in a scarecrow costume, and getting sawed in half.

But how much longer can this show go on? Most of the performers are in their 50s and 60s, and several have been in the show since the start. Magic of the 21st century is high-tech and elaborate, with celebrities like Criss Angel, who floats between buildings or is submerged in a water torture cell. Will this throwback of a magic show itself disappear, like the white ducks in Marco’s magic box?

“That’s a very big question,’’ said Stan Allen, editor of Magic Magazine, based in Las Vegas. “Le Grand David,’’ he said, “is very unusual, and the way the show came about is very unusual. There isn’t anything usual about it. It is as close to Brigadoon as anything in magic that we have. It doesn’t pack up its tent and go away.’’

A magical beginning
The person who pitched that tent is Cesareo Pelaez — Marco the Magi, onstage — who was inspired by the lavishly endowed traveling magic shows he had seen as a child in his native Cuba.

“In those days there were many . . . professional magic companies doing only magic,’’ Pelaez said after a recent show, in a faint and raspy voice with Cuban-accented English. “They came and set down for three and four days. I went backstage and asked, ‘Will you teach me?’ And some people say no, and some people say yes. So, there I learned by being backstage with these magicians.’’

Though he performed illusions and magic from time to time, it was years before magic became his profession. He studied psychology and education in Cuba, then fled to Colombia in 1960 after Castro came to power, arriving in the United States in 1962. He spent six years at Brandeis University as a disciple and teaching assistant of psychologist Abraham Maslow, champion of humanistic psychology and the concept of “self-actualization,’’ or realizing one’s full potential. Pelaez started a short-lived growth center in Dublin, N.H., called Cumbres, to encourage personal growth in a communal setting. In 1972 he was hired to teach psychology at Salem State College.

Before long he had a coterie of young people orbiting around him, students from Salem State and Cumbres, their friends, and their friends’ friends. Word had spread about this electrifying, charismatic teacher with the irresistible accent who challenged assumptions about psychology and life.

“He was encouraging and supportive always of the things people tried to do,’’ said Patricia Markunas, a professor of psychology at Salem State who worked with Pelaez at the time. “And he had that artistic personality, too, which made him unique in college, where most of us were left hemisphere.’’

David Bull, a.k.a. Le Grand David (pronounced Dah-VEED), was introduced to Pelaez by David’s brother Webster Bull, who had studied with Pelaez at Cumbres. “It’s hard to understand, if you are meeting him today, just how unbelievably . . . magnetic he was,’’ Bull said. “He was just a whirlwind of energy. I, as well as dozens of other people, thought this was the star I’m hitching my wagon to.’’

Pursuing his dream
Though they didn’t know it yet, Pelaez had a plan up his sleeve, to own his own theater and stage company. He had an instinct for identifying and motivating young self-actualizers who could help him realize this dream, people who could sing, dance, sew, do carpentry and painting. When he learned that E.M. Loew was selling the Cabot Street theater, he recruited 18 friends to invest in it in 1976. (Many of the same investors later bought the vintage Larcom Theatre four blocks away, where Le Grand David performs a different magic show once a month.)

Meanwhile, he was mobilizing the group to lay the groundwork for a major magic show. “It’s not an exaggeration to say there were probably 100 people closely or loosely associated with it,’’ David Bull said. Working in empty offices above the cinema at nights and on weekends, they labored over elaborate costumes, sets, and curtains. Oddly, no one seemed to know exactly what the end product would be, nor could they have guessed, since Pelaez had never let on that he knew magic. He nudged David Bull, then 22, to teach himself magic tricks, and Bull gamely complied.

“You knew you were headed toward a show, but you didn’t know what form it was going to take,’’ said Bill Balkus, a Newburyport architect who is still with the show.

That didn’t keep them from getting swept up in the energy and momentum, which culminated in the first show, on Feb. 20, 1977, called “Le Grand David and His Ten Assistants’’ (David Bull was Le Grand David from the beginning).

“We were all in our mid-20s, and we wanted to do something good for ourselves and something good for our communities,’’ performer Perry McIntosh recalled. “It was 1976. It was an idealistic time, and this was a cooperative venture of like-minded people. We all read Maslow’s work. We all wanted to grow and to be the best that we could be. This was a place where we could do that; we could create these amazing costumes. Outrageous doesn’t even begin to cover it.’’

She is referring to the Tammy Wynette wigs and bejewelled turbans and gold lamé trousers, for example. “It’s a kaleidoscope of visual beauty with kind of a semi-Oriental theme,’’ she said. “The idea was just to be visual.’’

The idea was also to present a seamless, eye-popping show based on the classics of magic tricks in a variety show format that would dazzle and amaze, a handkerchief scooting across the stage, a man levitating in the air, a balloon becoming a dove.

And this Pelaez accomplished, drawing crowds that routinely filled the theater. In the 1980s, the troupe was invited to the White House seven times. Almost all performers were volunteers.

“It’s in its own category, with its roots very much in the old magic show days,’’ said Allen of Magic Magazine. “Could you take it to Las Vegas? Of course not. Could you tour it? I doubt it. You have to walk in, and the illusion begins. The illusion is not on the stage, the illusion is the old theater and the way it’s restored and the lemonade and all of those posters and the graciousness. And the fact that the person next to you is telling you when he last saw it, 20 years ago.’’

Grew into the role
Throughout all this, Pelaez was center stage, but Bull, who had loved magic since he was a boy, grew into the role of his protegé, learning by observing Pelaez’s stagecraft and practicing magic on his own. “At some point,’’ he said, “I realized Cesario’s dream had really become my dream.’’

The dream has been uninterrupted all these years. Performers’ children were inducted into the show, such as Katie Bull’s daughter Martha, now 24, who recalls being levitated on stage in a miniature car. “There’s a lot of love between the members,’’ Martha said. “They have a strong sense of commitment. That’s kind of rare these days.’’

They pitch in to take care of Pelaez, who had a stroke in 2005, the beginning of a slow decline; he also has congestive heart failure. He is unmarried and has no children.

“We all feel somewhat responsible for his care,’’ said Katie Bull, David’s sister-in-law. “He’s at the end of his life. I don’t think it’s easy for him. A lot of different health issues have come together for this incredibly dynamic man who had his finger in every piece of the pie. It’s a sad situation for the parent who has always been the caregiver, this transition of needing care.’’

Most of the responsibility has fallen to David Bull, 55, who has lived with Pelaez since his stroke in October 2005 and takes him to his medical appointments. Bull, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Clark Gable in “Gone With the Wind,’’ also stepped into the role of primary magician. Pelaez returned to the stage six months after he suffered the stroke, but required a cane for balance, which limited his magic to one-handed tricks. A year ago, following a bout of congestive heart failure, he stopped performing, “at least to this point,’’ said Bull.

Bull said he definitely intends to carry on the show if Pelaez dies, though “there hasn’t been any formal passing of the torch. It’s been important for me to see this go on, even if — God perish the day — Cesario is no longer there.’’

The show is still grand, though smaller. “It’s certainly a tight time economically,’’ Bull said. At this particular show, the 2,542d, there were 94 people in the audience, and 18 performers, half of them volunteers, where once there were 72. At the end, Pelaez came out in a wheelchair, escorted by Bull. There was a scattering of applause as Pelaez smiled and made a circle with his thumb and forefinger.

When the theater emptied out, Pelaez was asked: Can this show go on forever?

“Nothing goes on forever,’’ interjected David Bull, sitting next to him on the stage.

But Pelaez had the final word. “Yes it can,’’ he said, in a steady voice.